Thursday, May 16, 2013

Summers in the 70's

Me and my sister circa 1970
If there is one dish that brings me back to a more simpler time and reminds me of summer, it is macaroni salad. This was the staple of our summer evening barbecues back in Wilmette, Illinois, when I was growing up. Swimming and lounging around the pool all day, the adults would drink homemade Pina Coladas or Margaritas, Santana or The Doobie Brothers would be playing on the stereo, and my dad would fire up the grill with his electric starter wedged in a tower of charcoal briquettes. It wouldn't be long before a neighbor would stop by and join in on the conversation and take a dip in the pool. Our back yard backed up to a forest preserve and you could hear the music of crickets and cicadas, while fire flies lit up the dark of the night like little blinking beacons in the air. I can remember the smell of fresh corn on the cob cooking on the grill, as they steamed inside their husks and the outer leaves became charred. Baby back ribs, hamburgers, hot dogs or skirt steaks were accompanied by baked beans with barbecue sauce and brown sugar, which baked in the oven all day. And there was macaroni salad. I can remember sitting at the kitchen table, in the house that I grew up in, chopping red onions, celery and tomatoes with my sister, Linda, as we made the macaroni salad together.  After dinner, we would play penny poker in our screened in porch. We would light candles in little votive holders and taper candles were inserted in the tops of old wine bottles, with the wax that had dripped down along the sides from many candles before. The wax created a beautiful mixture of color and texture. There was no TV, just the sounds of the forest, the music from the record player and the laughter of my family. Funny how one simple dish can bring back so many memories.

Classic Macaroni Salad

1 box of elbow macaroni
Hellman's mayonnaise
Tomatoes, chopped
Red onion, chopped fine
Celery stalks, chopped fine
Lawry's seasoning salt.

Cook macaroni as instructed on box, rinse, drain, cool. Mix chopped tomatoes, onions and celery with the pasta. Add mayonnaise and season with seasoning salt to your liking. Chill in refrigerator for about two to three hours, or all day. Before serving, taste and adjust seasoning with extra mayo or seasoning salt if necessary. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Planting the Seed


 As much as we may like to think that our husbands can read our minds, they can't. Sometimes you have to express what you want. Two weeks ago I decided to do just that. I thought I would "plant the seed" by telling my husband I wanted a vegetable and herb garden for Mother's Day. I couldn't let another Mother's Day go by with receiving the standard flowers (as nice as those are, but they die in two days), or the possibility of getting another purse. As much as I love purses, I really didn't need another. Yes, ladies I just said that. I know, weird that came from me. But this Mother's Day I really wanted to do something as a family, and I have been wanting to do a vegetable and herb garden for a long time. Every summer I have the thought, but never act on it. One year I got as far as starting the plants by seed, planting each vegetable variety in little peat moss pellets, but failed to take care of the little sprouts and get them in the ground.

For some of you who may be thinking, "What kind of gift is that? How about being pampered at a spa for the day?" I have to say that I am really lucky that I could do that sort of thing any time. It's not special enough. My kids are older now, and I remember a more simpler time when they were younger and they would make Mother's Day cards and gifts in school. My mother always said,  "These days never come again." And she was right. So what could be more special than being together and creating family memories. The garden was the perfect way to spend time outside away from cell phones and the TV, and it was the perfect gift because it would be one that would keep on giving all summer with its bountiful produce. And since I love to cook, it was something I would enjoy and appreciate. And who knows, maybe another "seed" would be planted in the minds of my children and get them to think about what simple pleasures are.

The original plan for the project was to be 1 part recycle, 1 part gardening and 4 parts group project, meaning all of us would do it together.  The recycle part was to use wine crates as raised planters, but I wasn't successful in finding them. Apparently, I wasn't the only person who had seen that idea (ahem, Pinterest). I opted for raised cedar planter boxes instead, and after we cleared some plants out and leveled the area as best as we could, we assembled them and filled with soil. I did manage to get some recycling in the project by making plant markers from wine corks and wooden skewers. I thought the kids were going to moan and groan about doing it, but they rose to the occasion and there were no sour faces.  For the cost of a nice purse I have something far more purposeful and meaningful to me.  After awhile the material gifts, as nice as they are to receive, don't really matter anymore.  I can't wait to see everything as it grows and I'm looking forward to cooking with my harvest this summer and sharing all the recipes with you. Life is good! 

In my garden: Japanese eggplant, zucchini, Japanese cucumber, orange, green, yellow, and purple peppers, jalapeno peppers, poblano/ancho peppers, habanero peppers, lemon boy tomato, heirloom black krim tomato, cherry tomato, beefsteak tomato, sage, sweet basil, purple basil, oregano, lemon thyme, thyme, rosemary,dill, chives, grapefruit mint, flat leaf parsley, and from seed - beets, radishes, green onions   

P.S. I didn't get a break from being in the kitchen on Mother's Day.  I made my mom Lemon Raspberry Tea Squares which are delicious!  I've been told I should open a bakery, these are that good. Gifts from your kitchen are always nice to give.

Lemon Raspberry Tea Squares

1 1/2 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon of Kosher salt
3/4 cup raspberry preserves
Confectioners sugar to garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8 or 9 inch baking pan and lightly dust with flour.  With mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, Add egg, vanilla, salt and lemon zest and continue to beat until smooth.  Add flour in small batches and mix well.  Place half of the batter on the bottom of prepared pan, pressing down.  Add the raspberry preserves, then crumble the remaining dough on top of the preserves.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.  Allow to cool for 20 minutes before you cut into squares.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Adventures in Dining - At Our House

My lucky husband.  Or maybe not so lucky.  He usually doesn't know whats for dinner until he walks through the door.  He never knows what he might enter in to either.  I could have the kitchen torn apart with every pot, pan and bowl out as I prepare dinner. I could be mumbling to myself, reading the next steps to a recipe, while he is trying to tell me about whats in the mail or about his day. Or I could not have anything planned and its either a left over night or we go out. On average I make dinner 4 times a week, giving myself a break on Friday, and if we feel like staying in on a Saturday night and cooking a romantic dinner for two we do.

Last night the dinner adventure began with me telling him as soon as he walked in the door, "I know you don't like scallops, but I think I'm going to change your mind after you taste these". He had an "oh man, you know I don't like scallops" look on his face, to which he said, "Is there a back up dinner?"  I told him I'd make him something else if he didn't like it, but I was sure that he would, and I was right.

I had purchased scallops the day before and I wasn't sure what I was going to do with them.  I searched my cookbook library and found two recipes that I had most of the ingredients. One had an orange marinade and then there was this one from Ina Garten's new book "Foolproof".  My daughter chose Ina's recipe.  Good girl!  It was amazing.  It took about 10 minutes to prep the ingredients for the puree, and then 25 minutes for it to cook.  It took less than 10 minutes to puree the mixture, and 6 minutes to cook the scallops.  I cleaned up while the potatoes, leeks and celery root were cooking.  I had a gourmet meal in less than 1 hour! I made one minor change to the original recipe and that is I reduced the cream by 1 cup and added 1 cup of milk in place of it.  Bon appetite!

Scallops with Potato Celery Root Puree

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 leeks, white and light green parts chopped, rinsed, drained
1 1/2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
2 pounds celery root, ends trimmed, peeled and diced
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
4 teaspoons Kosher salt
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh black pepper
24 medium sized sea scallops (buy them with muscle removed, Costco has good ones)
4 tablespoons grapeseed oil
Minced chive for garnish

Melt butter in a large stock pot or dutch oven, add leeks and saute over medium low heat for 8 to 10 minutes, making sure not to brown them. Add potatoes, celery root, cream, salt and pepper. Stir to combine well, and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to very low and cover pot. Cook for 25 minutes.  Stir occasionally, and be careful not to scorch the mixture on the bottom of the pan.

In batches, puree the mixture in a food processor.  Return to pot and keep warm.  Pat scallops dry with paper towel.  Season with salt and pepper.  Heat about 2 tablespoons of grapeseed oil on medium high heat.
Working in batches, sear scallops for 3 minutes on one side, flip and cook for two more minutes on the other.  Add additional grapeseed oil to pan as you cook the remaining scallops.  Spoon puree on plate, top with scallops and garnish with chives. Serves 3 scallops per person for 8 people as an appetizer, and serve 6 scallops per person for 4 people.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Giddy for Kitchen Gadgets and Gizmos

We are all have our weaknesses, right?  For some it's shopping, for others it may be chocolate, and while I can agree with both of those I have another weakness.  Kitchen gadgets.  Yes, all those things that most people can't wait to get rid of when they down size, or decide they don't like to cook, I love.  For as long as I can remember I've been fascinated by kitchen gadgets. As a child I remember the whirly rotating whisks that rapidly spun as you cranked the wooden handle. I loved to whip eggs using it when making scrambled eggs. And then there was the chopper, with its triple blade and it too had a wooden handle, which was used to chop anything from eggs for egg salad, cooked chicken livers for chopped liver or anything else that needed to be chopped and diced. There was also a metal cherry pitter that hand handles that looked like an industrial syringe, and every summer we would pit cherries for pies, tarts, or just because it was fun to use.

As my love for cooking grew, so did the appeal of kitchen accessories. I started out with a garlic press, I had a garlic roaster, and folding pie molds to make hand tarts or empanadas with. My collection grew instantly when I became a representative for Pampered Chef.  I had the pizza stone and clay baker and clay bowl, which made juicy tender chicken when you put the bowl over the baker. And of course I can't forget to mention the apple and potato peeler, corer and slicer, which made cork screw ribbons of apples or potatoes.  Later on I took an evening job at Williams Sonoma, where I really got the goods! With their 40% discount and monthly contests they ran I was in kitchen heaven! I don't think I took home much of a paycheck.  I won an electric bread maker machine and numerous Calphalon pots and pans. I got a pasta machine, ravioli press, pastry bags and tips, a hand chopper, lemon zester, melon baller, ice cream scoops for making perfectly round cookies, and all the rage at the time was the Silpat, that rubbery non-stick mat, which I have only used twice by the way, and so much more. Which leads me think, do I need all of these gadgets, gizmos and machines?

Yes, I need them! This is really not an unhealthy plea, for I actually use most of what I have. I have collected all of these items in an effort to make my love of cooking easier, and for the "just in case" moments. Just in case I want to purée my soup in the pot, I have an emulsion blender. Just in case I want to make french bread in the shape of a heart, I have a baking tube for that. Just in case I want to take my home grown tomatoes (which I will grow some day soon I hope), and use a food mill to make the perfect tomato sauce, I've got that too. Having all these gadgets also makes me feel confident in the kitchen, like I can tackle any recipe because I've got the right tool. I also feel a little chefy having all these tools of the trade. It's fun for me!

I admit I do have a couple of "as seen on TV" gadgets, like the Betty Crocker Bake'n Fill pan (which I have used and works well), and the Pancake Puff pan (I have yet to use) which makes little puffy pancakes that you can fill with jelly or pudding. My latest useful additions to my collection, however, is a corn peeler which scrapes the corn right off the cob, and a pineapple slicer and corer. Yes, I could use a mandolin (yes, I have one of those too) or a good old fashioned knife to cut the kernels off, but this tool does it so much better.

Through the years I have weeded out some items like the bread maker and an electric wok, and a deep fryer, which actually I'm sorry I let that one go. Now, there are some gadgets that I think are silly and I would never buy, like the pickle grabber.  It looks cool, with is three prongs that retract in and out of a pen like case, but I would use a fork or maybe even my fingers to get a pickle out of a jar. And toast tongs also would be among the silly item list. See, I'm not totally out of my mind, but I may be out of drawer and cabinet space!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Humble Beginning and a Tiny Kitchen

My husband and I got married when we were 24 years old. 24! We were so young. Not out of college for very long, just starting jobs, we were a little naive, and we were still learning who we were as individuals and who we were as a couple. But before we got married I had two goals that I wanted to accomplish. They were to travel and to have my own apartment.

I accomplished my first goal the summer of my junior year in college. I went on one of those trips that if it was Tuesday we must be in Belgium. I went with a group of other college aged kids touring 13 countries in three weeks. It was one of the greatest experiences, and I went by myself, not knowing a single person in the group.  The other goal of mine was reached after I had been out of college for 6 months. This goal was a suggestion, maybe really more of a request, that came from my older sister. Living on her own and a being teacher, she knew the value of being an independent woman, having a career, and how important it was for a woman not to go directly from her parents home to her married home.

My sister and I went apartment hunting soon after I took a job as a recruiter for an temporary consulting firm for engineers.  I found a studio apartment walking distance to my job. It was a four story prewar building in a small downtown area in a suburb of Chicago. It had all the vintage characteristics I had been longing for. It was a stone and brick clad building with 9 ft ceilings and crown molding and the unit had wood floors. The mail boxes in the lobby were brass and in rows all on one wall, and the banisters were large, decoratively carved and stained dark brown, along with doors to each unit. The building was close to a historical movie theater, the train and near shopping.  I had traded convenience and charm for amenities. It wasn't fancy. There was no doorman, air conditioning was from a window unit, it had a radiator (that hissed during the winter), and there was no elevator. I lived on the top floor, and thanks to my two brothers and my brother in law, who schlepped every piece of furniture and every box up the stuffy hot stairway that led to what was to be my home. It was mine. I couldn't have been more proud. My new job didn't pay much, $16,000 (this was 1989), but I had health insurance. I learned to pay my own bills, balance a checkbook, and generally keep things in order. There was no one to do things for me and this was an essential part of growing up and dealing with life after college and learning to be on my own.

Since the apartment was small, and I had no money, it was decorated and supplied with items that were in my parents basement. Hand me down furniture, old dishes that were my sisters, and other odds and ends from apartments that my brothers and sister had that my father kept in the basement. Nothing should go to waste was his motto. All that I could fit in the space was a day bed, two night stands, a TV and stand, and a table that was in front of the day bed. The place was like a large version of a dorm room. However, there was an amazing walk in closet that any woman would have envied, and in it fit this huge, tall dresser that was from my parents first bedroom set.  There was one window in the single room, with the air conditioner unit sticking out, and it over looked the busy street. The apartment decor seemed a little Bohemian in style and even though nothing matched, it didn't matter.

This is very similar to my first kitchen,
except no microwave or dishwasher.
This picture I found even has the
louver doors.
The studio apartment had a pullman kitchen, which was just a refrigerator (no ice maker) to the left, then a sink and a gas stove all in a row on one wall that had some cabinets above. There was no modern conveniences of a microwave or a dishwasher either. There were huge sliding louver doors that would close off the kitchen. I had a small rolling cart that had a top and slide out baskets that served as an extension of the kitchen were I stored utensils and a toaster. It was in this tiny kitchen that I remember making egg rolls from scratch, and a plum tart, and tuna noodle casserole, among many other dishes.  Looking back it would have made an interesting back drop to a cooking blog.  The small kitchen, with no counter space, dated appliances and no eat in area, didn't stop me from wanting to cook. I had a passion to learn, which must have been from all those cooking shows I'd watch with my mother.

Back then I continued to add to my recipe collection that I had started in college, and soon began a small collection of cookbooks. I decided to go down memory lane and brush off the dust of one of my first cookbooks that my mother bought for me. "Make it Easy in Your Kitchen" by Laurie Burrows Grad was a great book that really had easy and quick recipes, perfect for me as I began to experiment in my tiny apartment kitchen. I thought I'd share some favorite recipes from this book with you and I hope they make cooking easy in your kitchen too.

This pancake is great on a lazy Sunday morning. Serves 3 to 4

Dutch Babies

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk, at room temperature
Garnish with confectioners sugar and a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Melt butter in a 10 inch skillet.  Using a mixer, beat eggs, gradually adding flour and salt.  Add milk and beat until smooth.  Pour batter in prepared skillet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until pancake is puffy and golden brown.

These grilled swordfish steaks are a favorite of ours. I used to make this all the time, but stopped when I had heard not to buy swordfish due to over fishing.  This is no longer a problem. Serves 4

Grilled Swordfish Steaks

4 swordfish steaks
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste
1/4 white pepper
Pinch of paprika
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons fresh chopped flat leaf parsley

Marinate swordfish steaks in olive oil, salt, pepper, paprika, garlic, lemon juice and parsley for 30 minutes at room temperature. Grill fish for 6 to 8 minutes on each side, baste with marinade.

These raspberry tea squares were a favorite of my mothers.

Raspberry Tea Squares

1 1/2 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sliced almonds (optional)
3/4 cup raspberry preserves
Confectioners sugar to garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8 or 9 inch baking pan and lightly dust with flour.  With mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, Add egg and vanilla and continue to beat until smooth.  Add flour. Mix well.  Place half of the batter on the bottom of prepared pan, pressing down.  Add the raspberry preserves, then mix the almonds with the remaining batter and crumble on top of the preserves.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.  Allow to cool for 20 minutes before you cut into squares.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Mother's Little Helper - The Grill

Many working women ask me, "What quick recipes do you have?"  Well, my quick recipes involve my best cooking tool which is the grill, and that is how I get a tasty meal on the table so quickly. I am a working mom too, and I have distractions and struggles as does any mom when its time to get dinner ready. Grilling has become one of the best ways to get a quick meal ready. If you have read previous posts of mine you know I grill all year, through rain or snow. Sure there are times you have to plan and marinate something, but you can do that while you are at work. Other times you can get away with marinating something in an hour.  Take last nights dinner. I marinated some shrimp for an hour, put them on the grill, and bam! Dinner was ready. I even blanched some leeks and made a marinade for that too while the shrimp were getting their flavor on. Here is a short cut dinner recipe.

Grilled Shrimp with Leeks

12 to 18 raw shrimp, deveined, defrosted if frozen
1 package McCormick's Grill Mates Garlic, Herb and Wine Marinade
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
For leeks:
4 leeks, washed well, cut lengthwise, leaving the root intact
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the marinade, reserving 2 tablespoons so you can use to brush on while grilling, and marinate shrimp for 1 hour.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and blanch the leeks for 2 to 3 minutes.  Remove and immediately put leeks into a bowl filled with ice and water to stop the cooking. After a couple of minutes drain the leeks on a paper towel.  You can do this step a few hours ahead of time and refrigerate leeks until ready to grill. Mix together the mustard, sherry vinegar and olive oil and combine well.  Add lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.  Prepare grill. Brush leeks with mustard vinaigrette on both sides and grill until you have grill marks, about 5 minutes.  Grill shrimp about 3 to 4 minutes on each side.  Serve with basmati rice.

Seasonal Foods